Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) has made it clear that it's bullish on what it calls "Mini computing." The term itself refers to a fairly wide range of form factors, from relatively large Mini ITX PCs all the way down to the company's "Compute Stick" which is nearly as small as a typical thumb-drive.
One form factor that Intel has promoted heavily is its Next Unit of Compute or NUC. Intel pitches these as full PCs that are both energy efficient and compact enough to "fit in the palm of your hand."
For a while I had been interested in trying one of these systems out, but until recently, I didn't have an excuse to. However, I recently needed to get ahold of a low-cost desktop to use in a relatively cramped space, so a low-cost Intel NUC seemed like the perfect choice.
Here's what I bought
I purchased the Intel NUC5PPYH. Out of the box, the system included a quad-core Pentium N3700 processor (code-named Braswell), which is essentially the PC-bound version of Intel's Cherry Trail Atom processor. It has four Atom CPU cores and a cut-down version of the graphics block found in Intel's mainstream Broadwell PC processors.
The system also came with built-in Intel Wi-Fi as well as support for a wired Ethernet connection.
To get the system functional, I had to supply my own memory (I put four gigabytes in), storage drive (I used a 480GB solid state drive), and my own copy of Windows 8.1. To set the system up in the same configuration that I have should run you about $500 if all components are purchased new.
So, what's it like?
After installing Windows 8.1 and the various system drivers, I went ahead and started installing a bunch of software that I plan to use, including Office 365, Chrome, and a handful of PC games.
For general purpose usage, I found the system to be snappy and usable. I could browse the web with multiple tabs open in Chrome without an issue, and typing up documents in Word was as smooth an experience as any. Playing videos using Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) Instant Video and Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) was also a pleasant experience.
I even tried to play games. Intel's Atom processors have typically suffered from poor 3D graphics performance, but the company seemed to want to rectify this with Cherry Trail/Braswell. The integrated graphics card had little issue playing 3D PC games from the 2001-2003 timeframe at high settings at 1920-by-1080 resolution, though obviously one shouldn't expect to be able to play modern games at anything above "low" settings and at modest display resolutions.
This form factor is very impressive
Overall, I would say that I'm a fan of Intel's NUC, especially for those who need to fit a full computer into a relatively cramped space, as I needed to. The form factor is very cool, as it essentially allows one to turn any stand-alone computer monitor into a virtual "all-in-one" PC.
Although the model that I purchased uses a relatively slow Atom-based processor, Intel does sell models that use the company's higher-end, low-power Core i-series processors, which should deliver even better performance for heavy multitaskers and casual gaming.
Is the NUC truly the "shape that fits the future"?
Intel is generally bullish on the market for mini-PCs, and claims that the segment will grow at a 20% compounded annual growth rate between 2015 and 2018, from a level of approximately 5 million units in 2014.
Interestingly enough, Intel's marketing slogan for the NUC is "The Shape that Fits the Future." How likely is the implicit claim in this slogan to become true over the long-run?
I would say that in its current form the NUC isn't viable as a mass-market PC for a number of reasons. Most customers don't want to fiddle with installing components into a little box and then deal with purchasing and installing Windows just to get a system working; they want to buy something that "just works" out of the box.
Further, although I don't mind having a tiny box next to my monitor, I suspect that many, if not most, customers would rather have everything built into the screen.
If mainstream PC vendors such as Dell and Lenovo (NASDAQOTH:LNVGY) start offering fully functional mini-PCs with memory, storage, and operating systems pre-installed, then that would at least solve the ease-of-setup issue. However, there is a simplicity and elegance to having everything built into the display that might ultimately prove more valuable to mainstream customers.